Question: Does being circumcised change my sex life?
I’m a 37-year-old man who is recently divorced and just getting back into the swing of things with the dating scene. I’m also starting to have sex again for the first time in a long time since my wife and I stopped having sex more than two years before we separated, and I never cheated. Recently on a date, a woman asked me if I was circumcised and started going on about how circumcised men are missing out, because they lack sensation. Is this true? Is there research on this subject?
Circumcision is definitely a hot button topic, and whether you’re talking about the issue of circumcising newborn boys or the impact of circumcision on adult sexuality, everyone seems to have an opinion and has no problem letting you know what it is.
The short answer to your question is that there is an impact of circumcision on sexuality, and there has been some research on what this impact is. Unfortunately, there are many problems with the research on circumcision and sex which offer contradictory results that raise as many questions as they answer.
One thing I can suggest is to start taking apart the very big question about whether or not being circumcised impacts your sexuality and start asking more specific questions, like how circumcision impacts your physical sensation, or how circumcision impacts your sexual feelings and experience of pleasure, or finally, how circumcision might be impacting your sexual behaviors. Even though there may be similarities between men, your answers to these questions need to be your own, but asking the question is the first step.
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The Impact of Circumcision on Sexual Behavior, Pleasure, and Research
Sex and circumcision are one of those topics many of us may wonder about, but few of us raise with partners, or parents. Because most men who are circumcised get circumcised prior to their first sexual experience, it is difficult or impossible for them to say whether or not being circumcised has an impact. It’s the only penis they’ve had.
People who have sex with circumcised men do talk though, comparing the pros and cons of being on the receiving end (so to speak) of a circumcised penis, but their responses are never only about circumcision. A great lover will always be more than the shape and size of one body part.
As with any question about sex, trying to figure out the sexual impact of circumcision is more complicated than a single question or the results of a single study. Here are some common questions and answers about sex and circumcision.
Does circumcision impact physical sexual sensitivity?
By definition, circumcision is the cutting away of the foreskin, a part of the body that is rich with nerve endings. Circumcision has an impact on the physical structure of the penis and a corresponding impact on penile sensation. But how does this impact a man’s sex life? Does a loss in sensitivity measured in a lab feel like a sexual loss?
Does circumcision impact the experience of sexual pleasure and/or sexual satisfaction?
Sexual pleasure and sexual satisfaction may be related, but they are not the same thing, and neither pleasure nor satisfaction is exactly the same thing as sensitivity. What do we know about how men who are circumcised (and their partners) experience sexual pleasure and satisfaction?
Where can I find expert information on circumcision and sex?
One of the reasons for getting information on sex and circumcision can be confusing is that the research itself is contradictory. Most studies suffer from one bias or another, and no findings have been replicated enough to allow us to make any definitive statements on the subject. But research offers a place to start a conversation, and knowing the limits of the research can help make informed personal decisions.
It’s important to remember that from a sexual quality of life perspective one penis is not better than the other. The human body is capable of unimaginable pleasure, and when we think so narrowly as to say if you’re missing this piece of skin your sex life isn’t as good, we’re doing ourselves (and our bodies) a disservice.
What’s Wrong with Research on Circumcision and Sexuality?
Research on circumcision and sexuality is needed to get a better understanding of what impact circumcision has on human sexuality.
Unfortunately, the current body of research suffers from many problems which can make it confusing to navigate, and at times difficult to trust. If you’re trying to make your way through the murky waters of sex and circumcision research, consider some of these common research pitfalls.
Many (but not all) researchers who study circumcision come from a position of either being pro-circumcision or anti-circumcision. In peer-reviewed journals, they are required to state these biases.
But it’s hard not to notice that in every case, the results of the study confirm the authors’ belief.
It should be noted that most of these authors don’t consider being for or against circumcision to be a bias, they simply consider it the only position a scientist should take. Being a member of one group or another shouldn’t disqualify you from participating, but as laypeople, it’s important for us to know where our information is coming from. And researchers who hide behind a veil of objectivity need to be challenged.
Problems with Participant Selection
Studies claim to be representative but you need to read them carefully.
For example, one study published in a peer-reviewed journal recruited all their participants by using a newsletter of an anti-circumcision organization.
How could this not skew the results toward negative outcomes?
Another study compared adults before and after circumcision to consider the impact of circumcision on sexual functioning. But the participants had a physical complaint which led to them being circumcised.
If the circumcision resolved the complaint it’s likely that they would be reporting more positive effects of circumcision. There is no ‘perfect’ group to study, but what is disconcerting is the extent to which researchers play down these problems when they result in outcomes that they like.
Researchers use terms like “sexual sensitivity” and “sexual pleasure” interchangeably, and don’t always offer working definitions for these terms. From one study to the next, these terms are used and not defined, making it difficult to piece studies together. For example, sensitivity might mean:
- the number of nerve endings in a penis
- how the penis responds to being pinched or poked with a needle
- how much the man says he feels during sex
Similarly, not all circumcisions are the same. Different methods change the anatomy of the penis differently. Some methods remove all of the foreskins, others do not. Researchers rarely know, and so almost never specify, which leaves us unable to know if we are ever comparing apples to apples (so to speak).
Confusing Relationships with Causality
Most of this research is correlational and isn’t able to imply causality. Researchers may find that circumcised men experience sexuality differently than uncircumcised men, but they have no way of knowing whether circumcision is the cause of this difference. Sometimes the correlational approach can reach absurd heights as in one study which linked circumcision to everything from reduced sexual satisfaction to increased violent feelings towards women to addiction and low self-esteem.
The Bottom Line
What stands out most after reviewing dozens of studies is how different the results can be from one study to the next. With such conflicting results, one has to wonder about how careful these researchers are being in both their data collection and analysis or if they are even measuring what they think they’re measuring. It also raises the possibility that no meaningful generalizations can be made about the impact of circumcision on sexuality.
This all may be just another way of saying that there’s isn’t an objective right and wrong answer to the question of whether boys should be circumcised. In the absence of that answer, parents are left to do what they must do so often, make the best, most informed, a decision they can, and then do the best whatever the result.